SPECIAL SERIES: Training Your Own PTSD Service Dog by Dr. Joan Esnayra

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PTSD DOGS

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows persons living with mental health disabilities to train their own psychiatric service dog.

There are many good reasons for choosing this method as opposed to getting such a dog from a program.

First, owner-trainers get to choose the breed of dog they will partner with. For those of us who are drawn to breeds other than Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds this is an attractive feature.

I am drawn to Rhodesian Ridgebacks. I like the way they look, and I like their hound attitudes. You may want to peruse the many breeds that are available by visiting the website of the American Kennel Club or the Canine Club. It is important that you understand fully the characteristics of the breed that you decide to go with.

tn_01Second, owner-trainers get to raise their own puppy thereby ensuring that developmental stages are transited appropriately, traumas are minimized, and bonding is deep. Owner-trainers get to establish the safety and security that will characterize the rest of their dog’s life. A puppy under your care will never be without its pack leader and will always have a forever home.

As such, your puppy will never have the experience of bonding with a human only to have that bond broken repeatedly through changes in handlers and living arrangements. Your puppy will know trust, love, and stability because its heart will be intact. When speaking with your breeder, explain that you want a puppy with a ‘Volhard 3′ temperament.

You can read about the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test online here.

It is important to properly prepare for your puppy’s arrival. This means reading dog-related books, watching videos, talking to other dog owners, whatever it is that you need to do to become a knowledgeable and responsible puppy parent. There are important decisions that you will need to make, the first of which is, ‘What will I feed my puppy?’

There is a wonderful book titled, “Foods Pets Die For” by Ann N. Martin that I highly recommend. It is an eye opener about the pet food industry. I wish I had known about this book long before I did.

Then there is the issue of puppy vaccinations where more is not necessarily better. Another excellent reading suggestion is “The Nature of Animal Healing” by Martin Goldstein, DVM. Of all the books on dog-related subjects that I have read over the years, Dr. Goldstein’s little paperback had the most profound and lasting impact upon how I choose to raise my dogs today.

retrieveLearning to train your puppy is both challenging and fun. My best recommendation is that you hire a local professional dog trainer with whom you can have weekly one-on-one sessions. The purpose of these sessions is for you to learn how to train your puppy. Importantly, you are not hiring the trainer to train the puppy for you. Basic obedience can be mastered in twelve to sixteen weekly sessions provided that you practice daily. Be aware that every interaction with your dog is a training moment. The rules of the house are always the rules. Consistency is everything in dog training!

Strive to become predictable to your dog. When something is promised you should always follow through whether it is a promise to go to the dog park, an opportunity to earn a coveted treat, or simply following through on a command that your adolescent dog is choosing to ignore in the moment. Dogs need structure and daily routines that you both reliably stick to. Even if you don’t feel like walking your dog on a given day, you will do so, because your dog needs it. Exercise directly impacts your dog’s mental health, and you need your dog to be stable, especially when you aren’t.

All service dogs are trained in three areas: basic obedience, public access skills, and disability-related assistance. After mastering basic obedience commands both on and off leash put your puppy through the canine good citizen test and earn the well-regarded credential.

Once passed, it is time to put a vest on your dog. Vests may be obtained online. My favorite supplier is www.raspberryfield.com . They offer lots of colors and the vests are well made.

Importantly, you should never allow your dog to play while wearing its vest. You want the puppy to associate the vest with working. So, take it off if you want your dog to play.

Public access skills take longer to train than the basic obedience behaviors they are predicated on.

Canines for Hope: PTSD Dogs for Service

You should do a minimum of 6 months of public access training.

During this time, your dog will be known as a ‘Service-Dog-In-Training’. It is important that you look up your state’s Service Animal access laws in order to determine if you have public access rights while your dog is in training. Go to the PSDS website and click on ‘PSD Lifestyle’ then, click on ‘State Laws for PSD’.

Be sure to use the suggested key words to the right of each state link. Importantly, the ADA does not give you public access rights with a Service-Dog-In-Training, only when your dog is fully trained.

img_0043_400By the time you complete six months of public access training, you will have been training with your pup for nine or ten months already. During this time, whether you realized it or not, your puppy was studying your every move, learning your baseline behaviors, attitudes, and dispositions.

When these change, as a result of your being ‘triggered’ or because you are going into an episode of mental illness, your puppy will notice the change. Just as your dog has been studying you, so too, must you begin to study your dog.

When your dog notices that your physiology is changing take note of its facial expressions, body language, and behavior. These will reflect your dog’s cognizance of the change you are undergoing, even though you may feel nothing. Track these events.

Do a check-in with yourself. What are you feeling? What is the context? Learn to’ read your dog as your dog is reading you’. Somatic awareness and insight will follow.

Learning to ‘read your dog as your dog is reading you’ will allow you to intervene in the earliest stages of illness by employing cognitive behavioral skills, engaging risk reduction behaviors, taking PRN medication, or calling your doctor. This is what we in the Psychiatric Service Dog community refer to as ‘doing work’. It is trained behavior, because it relies on the dog having learned your baseline. Learning is training.

Importantly, no one else can teach this to your dog. This is one reason why owner-training a Psychiatric Service Dog is a superior method to getting one from a program. Such dogs know basic obedience, public access skills, and how to perform a repertoire of physical tasks that may or may not be relevant to your disability, but these dogs don’t know how to cue to your changing physiology.

For many Psychiatric Service Dog handlers this form of disability-related assistance is the most valuable because it cultivates insight and offers choices for how to manage episodes of mental illness.

Consider joining the Psychiatric Service Dog Society’s free online communities where you can explore the service dog lifestyle without any commitments. Training your own service dog isn’t always easy, but it is extremely fulfilling and will enrich the relationship you cultivate with your dog.

Joan Esnayra, Ph.D.
Founder of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society.

Canines for Hope: PTSD Dogs for Service


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joan Esnayra, Ph.D. is President and founder of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society.  Dr. Esnayra has spent the past twelve years pioneering the ‘Psychiatric Service Dog’ therapeutic model. Building upon her analytical training as a scientist, and her insights as a mental health consumer, Dr. Esnayra and members of her online community identified over 30 tasks or functions that Psychiatric Service Dogs may be trained to provide to their owners who are disabled by refractory symptoms of severe mental illness.

Dr. Esnayra and colleagues published the first clinical case study involving the use of a Psychiatric Service Dog in the Journal of Psychiatric Services. Additional publications based upon this growing body of work are in progress. The Psychiatric Service Dog model is a genuine grass-roots empowerment movement that is spreading nationally and internationally. Dr. Esnayra speaks eloquently and with authority on the subject of Psychiatric Service Dogs, by invitation, in venues all over the country.

To date, Dr. Esnayra has spoken at meetings of the President’s New Freedom Mental Health Commission, the National Institutes of Health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill, the Mental Health Association, the American Association of Psychiatric Nurses, the American Association of Medical Colleges, the International Society of Anthrozoology, and the Delta Society.

Most recently her interdisciplinary research group was awarded a clinical research grant from the U.S. Army to test the Psychiatric Service Dog Therapeutic Model in the context of a pilot study at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

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Readers are more than welcome to use the articles I've posted on Veterans Today, I've had to take a break from VT as Veterans Issues and Peace Activism Editor and staff writer due to personal medical reasons in our military family that take away too much time needed to properly express future stories or respond to readers in a timely manner.My association with VT since its founding in 2004 has been a very rewarding experience for me.Retired from both the Air Force and Civil Service. Went in the regular Army at 17 during Vietnam (1968), stayed in the Army Reserve to complete my eight year commitment in 1976. Served in Air Defense Artillery, and a Mechanized Infantry Division (4MID) at Fort Carson, Co. Used the GI Bill to go to college, worked full time at the VA, and non-scholarship Air Force 2-Year ROTC program for prior service military. Commissioned in the Air Force in 1977. Served as a Military Intelligence Officer from 1977 to 1994. Upon retirement I entered retail drugstore management training with Safeway Drugs Stores in California. Retail Sales Management was not my cup of tea, so I applied my former U.S. Civil Service status with the VA to get my foot in the door at the Justice Department, and later Department of the Navy retiring with disability from the Civil Service in 2000.I've been with Veterans Today since the site originated. I'm now on the Editorial Board. I was also on the Editorial Board of Our Troops News Ladder another progressive leaning Veterans and Military Family news clearing house.I remain married for over 45 years. I am both a Vietnam Era and Gulf War Veteran. I served on Okinawa and Fort Carson, Colorado during Vietnam and in the Office of the Air Force Inspector General at Norton AFB, CA during Desert Storm. I retired from the Air Force in 1994 having worked on the Air Staff and Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately Utah (my state) HAS recently updated their service dog laws……so much so that they no longer recognize any service dogs except those specifically for physical disabilities. It is my goal and wish to get this law changed to more closely match the ADA definition of service dogs.
    I agree with SD User for PTSD, alot of time I think people are in the mind set that we are ‘faking’ our disabilities and just want to have our dogs with us. I have more than once been told that I ‘look’ fine. To this I reply…well of course I do, I have my service dog with me!’
    While having my dog with me is a great help, it also has it’s bittersweet moments. I have been stopped in stores, specifically Walmart and told to wait while they go talk to someone at the Service Desk, we were allowed to proceed into the store. Thankfully I have never had any serious challenges but just getting stopped like that can send me into a panic attack. This was one of those bittersweet moments that i periodically deal with. While my dog allows me to step out of my door and actually do my own grocery shopping, there is the possibility that I will get stopped.
    It is a decision that each SD user has to face, are the doors that having a SD opens (literally for me since I have agoraphobia) worth facing these bitter sweet moments? For me the answer is a resounding YES!!! For without my SD i wouldn’t be able to get out to even have a chance to face these challenges, I would be forever homebound, letting my disabilities rule me and I want to LIVE not just survive

  2. [Quote] The Air Carrier Access Act in May 2009 that deliberately and blatantly discriminates against handlers who utilize service dogs for psychiatric disabilities. [End Quote]

    You make a good point and concern Nikki based on the limited research our staff has done thus far on this issue.

    Frankly, one way of looking at this from the view of Veterans and Military Families then spreading throughout our society just as the battle to get PTSD recognized in the first place is that Veterans and Military Families learned the hard way that legal litigation was the only thing our society understands.

    The only way PTSD was eventually accepted as widespread as it is today, and I welcome anyone to prove me wrong was via legal challenges first at the federal then state level.

    That is why we are disseminating this series of article beyond Veterans, active duty troops, and military families.

    We have cross post capability with online distributers that take Veterans and military family concerns beyond our community borders.

    One means is the News Ladder network that is not an affiliate of or associate of Veterans Today News Network.

    These article are cross posted on the PTSD, Iraq War, Our Troops, Health Care, and Justice news ladders, because we are trying to reach out and education a professional community beyond our own that consists of doctors (medical and psychiatric) and lawyers who are relatively new at taking on Veterans claims cases.

    Challenges to Veterans with Service Dogs would be just one more aspect of our fight against STIGMA in our society. The only way to win that war is by legal litigation.

    When Veterans and Military families win court cases that rolls down to others in the society we represent.

    I will be posing links to articles on legal challenges when we reach the section in this series on STIGMA.

    With the assist of Psychiatric Service Dog Society, we will also be looking at Patriotic and related organizations who offer an inexpensive alternatives to having to buy a traing service dog.

    Major Bob Hanafin
    U.S. Air Force-Retired

  3. [Quote] There is a stigma to those of us with psychological wounds. People question whether or not we are "faking" our illness, whether we can be trusted, and they want to ask in detail what pushed us over the edge. Society doesn’t exactly know what to do with an invisible disability that they cannot ask about, see, touch, or feel. If they cannot use one of their own senses to identify with the disability, they do not quite trust it. [End Quote]

    In doing our own research here at Veterans Today to get smarter on this subject, we’ve noted a wealth of increasing information on the STIGMA you mention. We understand Dr. Esnayra will in fact make STIGMA the focus of part three of her series.

    [Quote] We get stopped and access challenged when we go places, we have yet to lose the challenge. People ask a lot of questions. I work full time in education with children and my service dog accompanies me to work. [End Quote]

    We’ve also noted the growing number of court case involving such non-traditonal service dogs. Of note was the parents of an elementary school aged child who had to take their school to court in order to get access for an Autistic Assistance Dog.

    In fact, what research we’ve done thus far confirms that the definition of Assistance Dog goes far beyond what the established service dog organizations are comfortable with due to the threat posed by this plus real concern about standards.

    We also looked at both the pros and cons, and believe that at least for Veterans and Military Families it will come down to individual and family need and choice.

    Regarding the Service Dog industry, non-profit to a degree, they have found less costly ways to provide Service Dogs with scholarships that are needs based (as in financial need not disability need).

    Frankly, for young Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (or Older Veterans for that matter) the cost could get rather prohibited at what a low of $5000 to $10000 or more for an already trained Service Dog.

    That said, it is GREAT that there are a growing number of Trainers and Training organizations coming about with a focus on VETERANs who are providing trained service dogs FREE of charge, but as with anything in our society that if FREE or needs based, we imagine the waiting list could be as prohibitive as the costs of buying one.

    This is why self training or other innovative means of providing service dogs must be found that of course does not bring into queston the quality of dog one gets or the standards of training. Standards BTW that are constantly in flux, and consistently have their opponents as well as followers.

    What readers need to do is determine if opposition is based on STIGMA or real world concerns.

    I’m seriously thinking about training my own dog, because I’ve already trained her to do certain things that most dogs cannot do, retrieve a frisbee or ball and return it to me (what other objects I could train her to retrieve for me remains to be seen but I have the time and patience to do this despite my PTSD (or because of it). Can’t say that’s true for most Vets with PTSD or what have we.

    However, I would never even think about taking my dog in public with a vest unless she was fully trained, well behaved beyond question, and my dog would have to stand on her own as a Service Dog without any influence from me by wearing dark glasses or buying a wheel chair just to be accepted as disabled.

    Do we with hidden disabilites really have to go that far to be accepted. My thoughts are that some of us actually would.

    To me that is why we at Veterans Today see that cooperation rather than STIGMA must be the key that unites both the physical disability and psychological or cognitive disability worlds. Frankly, I’m also a believer that cognitive disabilities may lead to physical disabilities anyway if a human being’s handicapped is not accepted by our society.

    ROBERT L. HANAFIN
    Major, U.S. Air Force-Retired

  4. It is not only antiquated state laws that are a concern. The Department of Transportation implemented a new version of the Air Carrier Access Act in May 2009 that deliberately and blatantly discriminates against handlers who utilize service dogs for psychiatric disabilities.

  5. Yes, Major Hanafin, there are many states that have not updated their laws based on the updated ADA definition of service dogs. It is clear from the Ohio State Law mentioned about that they have not updated since 6-30-06. It is too bad that rather than review the ADA, The Assistance Dogs of Ohio would just simply copy and paste the statute. Of course, the state does provide the ADO with the necessary narrow vision to ensure them their jobs.

    There is a stigma to those of us with psychological wounds. People question whether or not we are “faking” our illness, whether we can be trusted, and they want to ask in detail what pushed us over the edge. Society doesn’t exactly know what to do with an invisible disability that they cannot ask about, see, touch, or feel. If they cannot use one of their own senses to identify with the disability, they do not quite trust it.

    The Hollywood stars who took their animals everywhere did not help our plight either. Unfortunately, there are times now that the public assumes that I just want to take my dog with me where ever I go, so I put a Service Dog vest on her. I get glared at when I walk into restaurants, looked up and down, and people loudly state as I walk by, “…doesn’t look blind to me.” Some times I ignore the person, other times my family thanks the person for supporting my service dog (with a smile on their face… it throws the people off). We get stopped and access challenged when we go places, we have yet to lose the challenge. People ask a lot of questions.

    I work full time in education with children and my service dog accompanies me to work. It was a process for me to be able to get the accommodation to help mitigate my disability. Fortunately, I have the help and backing of Joan Esnayra, Ph.D.

  6. Once a Psychiatric Service Dog is trained to standards, I assume that since memory and even cognitive functions are impacted by TBI and PTSD or combo of both that this is the part of the Ohio law that applicants must focus on, espcecially the part about "or perform any related function." Inability to remember or congnitive impairments are related to the functions of mobility, ambulate, descend, sit, or rise.

    "Mobility impaired person" includes a person with a neurological or psychological disability that limits the person’s functional ability to ambulate, climb, descend, sit, rise, or perform any related function. "Mobility impaired person" also includes a person with a seizure disorder.

    TBI by definition and degree of severity may of course impact all these functions.

    PTSD may impact some of them.

    However, that remains for a physcians, psychiatrist, and psychologists to determine.

    I also assume that whichever service dog organization a Veteran or Military Family is working with should be obligated, especially as a non-profit, to assist Veterans who qualify to manuever through their state level bureaucratic maze.

    This would be especially essential if the are of assistance dog reception is cutting edge like Psychiatric Service Dogs obviously are.

    Just thinking out load.

    I also wonder if Dr. Esnayra or any of her associates who champion the Psychiatric Service Dog movement see any bias in state laws that may be antiquated or need revision?

    When I say bias, I mean STIGMA towards those with psychological wounds compared to those with outwardly physical wounds or disabilities given that their is an American inner-STIGMA toward all the disabled regardless of how our disabilities were acquired.

    Major Hanafin
    U.S. Air Force-Retired

  7. 955.011 Registration for guide, leader, hearing or support dogs to be free and permanent.
    [codes.ohio.gov]

    (A) When an application is made for registration of an assistance dog and the owner can show proof by certificate or other means that the dog is an assistance dog, the owner of the dog shall be exempt from any fee for the registration.

    Registration for an assistance dog shall be permanent and not subject to annual renewal so long as the dog is an assistance dog. Certificates and tags stamped "Ohio Assistance Dog-Permanent Registration," with registration number, shall be issued upon registration of such a dog. Any certificate and tag stamped "Ohio Guide Dog-Permanent Registration" or "Ohio Hearing Dog-Permanent Registration," with registration number, that was issued for a dog in accordance with this section as it existed prior to July 4, 1984, any certificate and tag stamped "Ohio Handicapped Assistance Dog-Permanent Registration," with registration number, that was issued for a dog in accordance with this section as it existed on and after July 5, 1984, but prior to November 26, 2004, and any certificate and tag stamped "Ohio Service Dog-Permanent Registration," with registration number, that was issued for a dog in accordance with this section as it existed on and after November 26, 2004, but prior to the effective date of this amendment shall remain in effect as valid proof of the registration of the dog on and after November 26, 2004.

    Duplicate certificates and tags for a dog registered in accordance with this section, upon proper proof of loss, shall be issued and no fee required. Each duplicate certificate and tag that is issued shall be stamped "Ohio Assistance Dog-Permanent Registration."

    (B) As used in this section and in sections 955.16 and 955.43 of the Revised Code:

    (1) "Mobility impaired person" means any person, regardless of age, who is subject to a physiological defect or deficiency regardless of its cause, nature, or extent that renders the person unable to move about without the aid of crutches, a wheelchair, or any other form of support, or that limits the person’s functional ability to ambulate, climb, descend, sit, rise, or perform any related function. "Mobility impaired person" includes a person with a neurological or psychological disability that limits the person’s functional ability to ambulate, climb, descend, sit, rise, or perform any related function. "Mobility impaired person" also includes a person with a seizure disorder.

    (2) "Blind" means either of the following:

    (a) Vision twenty/two hundred or less in the better eye with proper correction;

    (b) Field defect in the better eye with proper correction that contracts the peripheral field so that the diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no greater than twenty degrees.

    (3) "Assistance dog" means a guide dog, hearing dog, or service dog that has been trained by a nonprofit special agency.

    (4) "Guide dog" means a dog that has been trained or is in training to assist a blind person.

    (5) "Hearing dog" means a dog that has been trained or is in training to assist a deaf or hearing-impaired person.

    (6) "Service dog" means a dog that has been trained or is in training to assist a mobility impaired person.

    Effective Date: 03-17-1989; 11-26-2004; 06-30-2006

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